How do the liberal arts produce a “good citizen”? — or a “good Christian”?

Scott Says:
April 4, 2008 at 6:29 am
Do we know in advance that the techne of a given discipline is intrinsically conducive to bringing about ‘a good citizen’? One might be persuaded to think that the techne has to do with learning how to see and understand the object / subject matter of the discipline (e.g. poetike, politike). rather than some other end like ‘making a good citizen’? Also, do we know that this ordinary language philosophy of ‘techne poetike’ includes some explicit philosophical doctrine about ‘making good citizens’? In other words, wouldn’t we need some explicitly stated doctrine about the intrinsic goal(s) of human nature and how that goal is partly achieved by being apprenticed into various disiciplines? Just some thoughts…

Good point, Scott. (My off-line writing is spelling this out point by point.) So thanks for bringing it up here.

In fact, I hope I do not propose that “the techne of a given discipline is intrinsically conducive to bringing about a good citizen,” and for two rather different reasons. First, taken by itself, a techne is precisely what you describe, “learning how to see and understand the object / subject matter of the discipline (e.g. poietike, politike).”

[By the way, for non-Greek scholars out there, in Greek these are pronounced “poy- AY-tee-kay” and “pol-EE-tee-kay,” so the -IKE is pronounced “EE-kay.” It’s always fun to know these sorts of things, even though we don’t as a rule run around saying YULE-ee-us Kai-sar, for Julius Caesar, do we?]

But given the theory of the ike that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle produced, and that informed all education in the liberal arts at least through the Renaissance, it is precisely the non-single-ness of an ike, the very fact of the many ikes, and hence, of the many epistemological ways of knowing (as opposed to the single authoritative way, the classical scientific rationalism of the 17th-19th centuries, upon which our own monolithic “modern epistemology” is based) that they found the possibility of producing a new kind of knower: the “liberated” or “free” knower.

No one ike, however important and broad in its scope, could possibly do this, because it would always be single, and the knower would be ill-equipped for knowing and unable to guard against the manipulation and misuse of that one way, as scientific rationalism has been misued (and as monolithically conceived biblical authority has been misused). The whole point was to learn that truth is arrived at variously and through its different focuses, in both its objects and its aims. (Truth is not relativistic, not vague and fuzzy, but it is highly varied, and knowing towards truth is accomplished through means that are highly focused and therefore powerful AND LIMITED in their very constitution.)

This liberally educated knower is the only Knower equipped to really function as a good citizen, because only such a person has the means to develop the requisite kind of freedom and wholeness in choosing. (More on this in a moment.) But the second reason that no techne produces a good citizen is that nothing EVER guarantees that a person WILL become a “good citizen” — look at Alcibiades.

Nonetheless, only such a knower has offered to them even the potential, the potential to become the kind of person who might result when the mind is equipped with many ikes, and who therefore might have come to terms with the strengths and limitations of each ike, and with the various claims each makes on the knower, with respect of the others. This person, therefore, is the who has genuinely realized and internalized the deep truth that the real difficulty in knowing is knowing how to value and appreciate the ikes with respect to one another, and then, knowing how to bring them to bear, something for which no rules can be written. (Arendt calls this the “nativity” of the citizen, the power for bringing irreducibly new things into the shared communal world.)

Only such an agility and responsibility — attributes that have grown up functioning in the mind or personhood of the knower — will enable any citizen or civic leader to bring all of this (the various ikes as one) to bear upon the city’s needs and crises, as well as to bear upon one’s own deepest existential and spiritual questions.

Christian thinkers and teachers had no problem with this Socratic theory of the liberal arts, because it was manifest to the church early on that sound teaching is a matter of balancing many truths, and that balancing many truths is a matter of personal growth, and that the struggle that never quits. Therefore, teaching that does not nourish knowers (heresy) is simply teaching that takes one TRUTH and emphasizes it out of proportion to the other TRUTHS (Christ’s divinity, Christ’s humanity; the intrinsic goodness of created nature; nature’s fallenness; the primacy of grace, the necessity of good works; and so, on and on).

To grow as a Christian was viewed, in the Greco-European tradition, in the same way as to grow as a liberally educated knower, which is why it was medieval Christianity that founded the universities, where faculties are brought together in one place, many teachers to teach many different ikes. (Many “ways” (versa) in one place (uni) — according to medieval theologians and historians. Or see the incredibly enlightening essay by Thomas Merton on the university education in a posthumous collection of his essays called “Living and Loving.”)

“Freedom,” as enjoyed by a liberally educated knower and as enjoyed by a mature Christian, this “Freedom evolves,” as Daniel Dennett has said (in a similar but different context). The ability to act and to choose, in complex situations, and to elect one course to follow, with all of its ambiguities and hardships, and then to follow it with the poise of a whole and integral personhood, this is the end result of an ardent life-long struggle in knowing: the struggle of continually re-integrating the various ikes and their various truths and learning to recognize “what truth feels like,” in all its different guises.

Jesus did this, when “he set his face like a flint toward Jerusalem.” Socrates did it when he chose to follow a LESSER good, simply obedience to the laws of his city, and so to drink the hemlock. He was in a highly equivocal situation, and he chose to follow this simple and humble law, just as wholly as he might have followed a much higher truth or a higher good in another situation (e.g. in the LIFE he had led, admitting his own ignorance and struggling toward an understanding of what sort of thing knowing really is).

Now I know that modern Christians have difficulty with this, because of our own modern epistemology, and they will often protest that the Christian life isn’t “just for an intellectual elite” or that it is lived “by faith” and not “by reason.” But this again is a great misunderstanding, based on our modern epistemology, of what it means to engage in “knowing” and what truth is like. In scriptures as in classical philosophy, “all human beings eagerly desire to know.” We are knowers, and faith is an engaged process of struggling ardently in knowing.

“Knowing” is not, as modern epistemology suggests, something that culminates in “knowledge”; knowing uses knowledge, a secondary sense, and such knowledge is always, always provisional and heuristic knowledge, not final knowledge.

So knowing is not about having in our grasp “some explicitly stated doctrine about X,” as Scott puts it. Nor is knowing “by faith” anything other than following and engaging in the ways of knowing that are founded on trust, on an acceptance of the bibilical materials and the sacraments and doctrines of the church as means (ikes, as it were) for coming to know God better. But we have to struggle to interpret these materials and traditions, to integrate them ever more deeply into our lives, to understand them as living means of truth, helped along by more mature knowers, and always learning by placing the emphasis too much here and too much there or discovering we have been entirely wrong. We are perfectly capable of being blinded by the lights that are given to us.

Faith is “learning how to” work with and benefit from all of the formal means and materials that we take to have been given us by God, because God communicated God’s self towards us through revelation. Faith knowing is the knowing that is based on working with special revelation, the Hebraic tradition and the revelation of God in Christ, but these are no less difficult to engage with as knowing the natural and human worlds through the disciplinary ikes.

What the faith gives to us to work with must be unceasingly interpreted and re-balanced and re-integrated within the believer’s growing mind. This is a passionate and wholistic process, of course, just as the “philosophical way of life” with all of its arts and sciences was in the 4th century BCE, and it uses things like “explicit doctrinal statements” as grist for its mill, but as for the real goal, the understanding of (or deep contact with) the “object or subject-matter” of all these doctrines and writings and traditions? As for knowing God? As for knowing Christ? These things that the faith gives us are not the ultimate to-be-known, but speak of and point towards Him, and even unite us with Him.
So you see, this older theory of knowing does not just rest in the many-ness of the ikes, as equipping a knower to USE and balance and integrate all the various ikes and on occasion to choose the claims of one over another as paramount in a given context. And it does not just rest in the power of the many-ness of the ikes to enlighten the knower as to the many aims that might be in view, so as to be able to choose WHAT the relevant goods might be in this situation or which might be best to follow NOW….

No, in addition to all of this, the older theory of knowing always rests in, and places the dunamis, the power and the generative energies of human knowing in, the to-be-known, in the hidden depths of reality that constitutes the TO-BE-KNOWN. (The knower is not the source of knowing; not until after the ikes have come into the mind as mediators of knowing, and the ikes can only be such if they are indeed able to open the mind to perceive some of the genuine characteristics of the to-be-known.)

The ikes, in other words, WORK to empower the knower ONLY insofar as they are themselves efficaciously formal organizations that accord with and bring to manifestation (some aspects of) the true intrinsic formal organization of the to-be-known, the “object or subject matter”of the ike.

Do you see? The ike is almmost like an “invasion” into the knower’s mind, or an “opening up” and reorganization of the knower’s mind, so that it can apprehend the to-be-known, by implanting something inside the knower that is profoundly “like” that which is to be known. The ike in the mind is the mediating formal substance — it is the “something in common” that is BOTH the to-be-known and the knower; BOTH the self and the other. (AD’s “extimate core” of the knowing subject, over on

Thus the ike is in this sense very like Christ, in its function and constitution, as being the mediative, revealing, substantiality that is both God and humanity and can therefore bring them into communion, because this one “host” is God and is “in us,” at the same time. (I could say more a lot about Christ as the Word, here….)

So, for a knower to engage in knowing God through Christ, it is absolutely necessary to have a new “place in the mind” opening up, wherein these new ways of knowing can root themselves and gradually (perhaps) transfigure the knower. (The new birth, of course, as the spiritual regeneration of what Adam lost in spiritual death.)

In ordinary circumstances, this building of the ikes as dynamic mediators between the knower and God takes place through the dailyChristian disciplines and through the ongoing teachings and sacraments of the Church. So this theory of knowing is not an intellectual elitism; it is the all-important taking in of the “milk” and then the “meat” that makes us mature (Hebrews). The difference between natural knowing through the secular arts and sciences, and faith knowing, is that in the second case, the milk and meat — the to-be-known — is the special mediative substances for knowing that we trust that God has given. So we believe them (accept them) in order that we might genuinely begin to engage in knowing through them. (Credo ut intelligis.)

But ultimately, what matters most for religious knowers is a modicum of deep contact with the divine to-be-known, and this can come in extraordinary ways as well. Thus we all know persons who deeply “know” God without much theology. Very simple persons can have a deeper knowing of God (a more fiery love) than most persons with high IQ’s.

What matters is the extent to which God is being known by the person, not at all the inherent abilities of the knower. Aquinas himself said that compared to his contemplative vision of God, all his writings “were as straw.” He did not mean they were wrong or worthless. He never had claimed they were right in the first place. They were deeply grounded, humble, arduous, heuristic efforts at knowing better, more deeply, and they were submitted in that spirit to the ongoing theological conversations, and he rejoiced in doing it.

But they were all “for the sake of knowing God,” and that knowing as it turned out was infinitely deeper in his contemplative experience, before his death, than in his writings. Who knows if his experience could have come to him in just that way, though, if his soul had not been strengthened and prepared through the spiritual exertions of his writings. Certainly his writings strengthen and prepare us for knowing.

The telos of the liberal arts education and of the Christian life in the earlier Western liberal arts tradition (and I think this is biblically the case as well) was always to produce in the knower, not a set of “explicit statements of doctrinal truth,” but rather, instead, “wisdom.” Wisdom is entirely personalistic: it cannot be scripted and it has no written rules. (Just as Aristotle pointed out about the ethical virtues in NE.) Yet every script and rule can inform it, and often, at one point and another in a process of growth, are even necessary to inform it.

So I think that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, like Jesus and the Apostles, knew that wise persons often do not manage to save the ship of state, yet they are nonetheless essential to the city’s hope for its welfare, and we are taught to commit ourselves to that, if not as the highest law. Yet, in the collapse of civic salvation, there remains the personalistic salvation that Merton describes, that the university exists to enable.

Milton saw that the Christian Republic to which he had devoted his life had been abandoned, and that England had fallen back into the tyranny of monarchs, as he saw it. So at last, he wrote Paradise Lost instead, in his dying years, about what two human persons in love with one another took with them out of the garden. And Athens continued to decline after the execution of Socrates. Yet Arendt reminds us that Aristotle thought that Plato had died a happy man.

16 thoughts on “How do the liberal arts produce a “good citizen”? — or a “good Christian”?

  1. I hope you can see that the way the Socratic theory of knowing places the origin of knowing in the to-be-known, and then only secondarily, in the mind of the knower through the formal ikes that enable the knower to have contact with the to-be-known — I hope you can see that THIS is the way out of our current impasse in the arts and sciences between the natural sciences and cultural studies.

    Our own Anglo-American modern epistemology (theory of knowledge) offers us only a stark and inoperative choice, tragically, between scientific knowing and relativism (cf. Rorty), or between an “external world” and “making it up as we go along.” But THEORY offers us the explanatory vision of how we humans do make contact with reality in many of its different aspects, through sharp and focused formal ikes in our heads, insofar as those ikes are indeed sufficiently and well formalized ENOUGH to forge that contact. Yet that high degree of intrinsic formalism itself also constitutes the constitutive limitations of the ike, that it will always be evolving and being tested and re-invigorated, and most of all that it will always be suited most of all to knowing ITS KIND OF THING, ITS TO-BE-KNOWN.

    And that our knowing of the to-be-known is always (wonderfully) mediated knowing and never direct, unmediated knowing, although when we are really skilled and mature in a kind of knowing it feels exactly like direct contact! At least for moments at a time!

  2. Rick


    You said “the Socratic theory of knowing places the origin of knowing in the to-be-known, and then only secondarily, in the mind of the knower through the formal ikes that enable the knower to have contact with the to-be-known”.

    It seems to be that this is “built into” the sciences, as a part of the taken-for-granted background. It is an unstated starting point without which the entire enterprise makes no sense.

    I earlier refered to an sicence fiction short story, Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper, (a story with several fascinating aspects). The point of the story revolves around archeologists exploring an alien civilization find a list of the chemical elements, which allows them to have a basis for deciphering the language; The key plot point is the passage

    “But, Martha, can you be really sure? You know, by now, that learning to read this language is as important to me as it is to you, but how can
    you be so sure that those words really mean things like hydrogen and
    helium and boron and oxygen? How do you know that their table of
    elements was anything like ours?”

    Tranter and Penrose and Sachiko all looked at him in amazement.

    “That isn’t just the Martian table of elements; that’s _the_ table of
    elements. It’s the only one there is.” Mort Tranter almost exploded.
    “Look, hydrogen has one proton and one electron. If it had more of
    either, it wouldn’t be hydrogen, it’d be something else. And the same
    with all the rest of the elements. And hydrogen on Mars is the same as
    hydrogen on Terra, or on Alpha Centauri, or in the next galaxy–“

    Note that the order – atomic numbers and atomic weights are “out there”, in to to-be-known (the chemical structure of matter), needing “only” to be discovered (not invented!) by the would-be-knowers. The structure is in the world, our theories and knowledge mirror, or correspond to, the world. Ideally, the world and our theories are isomorphic.

    Notice also the sentence “Tranter and Penrose and Sachiko all looked at him in amazement.” The amazement is, of course, because this is obvious, part of the taken-for-granted background; it is obvious tha the table of elements is the same on Mars, on Terra, and on Alpha Centari.

    The deveopment of the knowledge is, of course, a historical process. Take, for instance, the sentence “The Half-life of Uranium-238 is 4.46 billion years”. This is, in Searle’s term, a brute fact. It is true whether or not anyone knows it; it was true in the ages of the ancient greeks, it was true in the middle ages, it was true when dinosaurs roamed the earth. But we did not know this fact until early in the 20th century. But the truth of this fact does not depend on any manner whatsoever on our knowledge of this truth.

    you said th structure of the world (the ikes) “can only be such if they are indeed able to open the mind to perceive some of the genuine characteristics of the to-be-known” and that “an ‘opening up’ and reorganization of the knower’s mind, so that it can apprehend the to-be-known, by implanting something inside the knower that is profoundly “like” that which is to be known.” I would call this, or rather the virtue that a person who would be a knower must have, a type of humility, a willingness to be “opende up” or to have their mind “reoganized”. The sciences have this “built in” stystemically, athough of course not equally well at the level of the individuals doing science, who get as attached and intrenched in their own individual theories and viewpoints as anyone else. Someone (I forget who) once said that new scientific theories don’t become accepted so much by convincing those who hold the old theories, but by those who hold the old theories dying off, leaving behind younger people who grew up wioth the new theories).

    All of which leads me to a puzzle. You spoke (in another thread) of “those who may have had an animus against the sciences”. bUt, it seems that if these are people who [claim to be] interested in theory, and how theories work and develop, then the sciences are an example par excellence. Science is theory. How is it possible that anyone who can credible claim to be interested in theory, if they have an “animus” againt the very thing they claim to be interested in?


  3. Rick

    Sorry about the botched blockquote tag pair in the previous post. I don’t know how wordpress workd on this; it may need to be fixed or any additional replies may by messed up, but I don’t think I can get into it to fix it myself.

  4. Yes, Rick, I love the fact that the assumption that the knowing begins in the structure of the to-be-known IS “built-in” to the natural sciences. Here, we see that the classical Greek philosophers who founded the arts and sciences were in accord with the modern natural sciences. But for different reasons. (It was their theory of knowing, not empiricism pure and simple.)

    However, today, we have two big problems facing us in education .

    1) many scientists (and others) do not give the same degree of credibility to the other arts and ikes, whereas the earlier Greco-European thinkers DID. The reason for this bias in favor of the hard sciences is of course the scientistic assumption that only the subject-matters of the physical sciences have built-in structures to-be-known, and only they have THE legitimate procedures for validity-testing of the theorizing they do.

    As moderns, we lack the efficacious theorizing that could give us a compelling account of different kinds of rigorous validity, different kinds of validity testing, and instead we reserve this formal validity for the empirico-experimental methodology of the sciences. This inevitably puts the other ways of knowing on a lesser plane and makes them second-class citizens in the enterprise of human knowing. This, then, often gives rise to a kind of animus against non-scientific ways of knowing…and it is reciprocated.

    2) On the other side of the divide, those who theorize other subject-matters and have a lot of historical and theoretical grounding are highly aware of the distortions of scientism and the dangers of those distortions, and when they attempt to educate about those, they are often perceived as attacking science. (Example: literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s response to Richard Dawkins’ _The God Delusion_, which was generally trashed on the science blogs but seemed perfectly reasonable to me.)

    In addition, especially in the English-speaking world, there are those who really do believe that either knowledge has to be certain and finalized, or else we really are “making it up as we go along.” Our conversation has called to my attention, to my astonishment, that there really are Anglo-American thinkers who deny that science is in contact with an external world. I think that is extraordinarily naive (and repeat that my French Poststructuralist theorists attacked by Alan Sokal are being pilloried) — but it is understandable because we lack a theory of knowing that deals with the middle ground between absolute empirical knowledge on the one hand and human construction of reality at the other extreme. Niether of these options is a genuine one. The ways of knowing are negotiations between human knowers and the to-be-knowns, negotiations that take place in and through the formalized disciplines.

    I hope you see that my own efforts are trying to think a way through this impasse and to elucidate the common ground shared by natural scientists and cultural theorists, by affirming the fact that the sciences are making contact with the structure of the to-be-known. But I also wish to show that so are the non-sciences, when they are rigorous.

    The difference in the kinds of theorizing depends on the differences in the to-be-knowns in each case, and in this insistence, I am returning to the conviction upon which the arts and sciences were originally founded by Plato and Aristotle in their academies. (This pluralism in the ways of knowing is everywhere during the medieval and Renaissance periods in which my own training centers.)

    But both camps — scientists and humanists, if you will — are going to have to “give” a little, by only (I think) by being more consciously and consistently sophisticated and exact on both sides of the great divide.

    Physics, for example, will have to give up (and already has, but it is trickling down rather slowly through the ranks) on thinking that the correspondence of the theory to the to-be-known is ever acheived absolutely, or needs to be.

    Now understand me on this: the ideal correspondence you mention, Rick, is ALWAYS the goal in any way of knowing!!! That’s exactly what Socrates saw, I believe. As soon as we take the current “account(s)” of a to-be-known and interrogate them in the NAME of the to-be-known, THEN we begin to engage in a formalized, disciplinary practice of knowing. “What is Justice?” “What is the Good Life?” Socrates asked these questions and in pursuing them thoughtfully, dialecftically, he re-founded the ike called ethike or “ethics” on a newly rigorous basis.

    Plato realized what Socrates had done, and developed the theory of the ike from it — and yet, even though genuine knowing begins only when we open that gap between the to-be-known and our current account of it, Plato tells us in _Republic_ that the IDEAL of Justice itself is fortunately never knowable to mortal humans. This is just as well, after all, because it means we never need to stop looking for it! I am quite serious about this.

    Scientism gave us the deadly idea that only the finalized and perfect theoretical map provides us with the “facts of the matter” that we need to go on. Only mathematico-scientific endeavors seemed likely to give us this kind of “real knowedge,” as a result. Well, in the 20th century it finally turned out that the great early modern epistemological project (in its final philosophical embodiment with Frege-Russell-Carnap) couldn’t give us this supposed absolute certainty. And yet the sciences went right on as before, pushing back the frontiers of human knowing as they had always done. Certainty was never the determining point. The point was to make whatever headway could be made into the to-be-known.

    But the damage was done, and even Christians, who of all people should know that mortals never grasp more than a part of the truth in their lifetimes, began to think that absolute knowledge was necessary and that therefore the Bible should give it to us, rather than “merely” giving us the materials for engaging in the difficult processes of knowing into or towards a truth that alway, always, exceeds us.

    Recapture, I think, the older, more efficacious sense of “truth” as a genuine deeper contact with the to-be-known and we can teach the liberal arts once again as delivering to us a liberating and transforming kind of truth, as appropriate to each of these kinds of knowing. This is not relativism. This is a renewed rigor in our thinking about how humans come to know.

    So the animus you ask about, Rick, among some “theorists” against the sciences is,in my view, an animus against destructively inflated scientific truth claims (earlier in the history of the sciences but often still held today) that seem to imply that every other field reaches “the facts of the matter” in only dubious and inferior degrees, often simply because theory in those fields deals with structures and processes that are probable or typical or normative, rather than strictly deterministic.

    But physics itself, for example, has reached that same state in the case of the standard theory of particle physics, so…. Nothing prevents theory from being powerful and beautiful and useful and valid when it is theory dealing with probablistic to-be-knowns, rather than with mechanistically determined ones. But in our academic world, as we know, we tend to label anything non-deterministic as “chance” or “random.” Here again, the older theory of knowing was much more workable, since they were perfectly correct in thinking that most of what humans need to know “happens for the most part,” as Aristotle put it, and not with 100% predictability.

    So perhaps we are ready — even without having finished reading Plato’s _Ion_, to talk about that discovery of Planet #%# that I was asked to comment on way back in the early part of this weblog conversation. I was asked to comment, if you and other recall, on the “truth” of a certain scientific discovery, or more precisely, I was asked something like “do I think that this planet does indeed exist out there, as described.” Is this planet real?

    From the perspective of the way of knowing called physics, yes, it does exist out there as described. That’s my short answer, but I cannot stop there. (To no-one’s great surprise….) Physicists themselves raise no red flags about the reliability of their findings about this kind of to-be-known, and I accept the truth of the reports because I accept the validity of physics.

    But physicists DO raise many red flags about the existence of “wave-packets” or of “quarks.” Niels Bohr had good reasons for saying that although the maths for QM work, we cannot say they describe the “reality,” or even that “reality” as we know it is relevant to quantum mechanics.

    A large portion of particle physicists today are self-described “positivists,” and they don’t want to talk about reality in physics at all. Stephen Hawking: “I don’t care about reality because I don’t know what it is” — in his great conversation with “platonist” Roger Penrose. Hawking just wants formulas that agree with experimental results. To me, this in no way invalidates QM or particle physics, because these disciplines are getting at the state of affairs the only way they can, and that’s good enough for me. The disciplineof particle physics also tells me that of course the current theory might be wrong, that it will probably never be fully tested, and that even if it is right, it will probably be deeply transformed by currently unknowable and unpredicatable advances in the field in the future. (This is based on that 3 interpretations of physics essay from the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and on many comments from physicists on this weblog….)

    So I take the truth-claims of physics exactly as the physicists give them to me, Rick. About the planet #%#, yes, it “really” is there, because physicists tell me it is and are not in doubt about it. As for “quarks,” as one theoretical physicist put it recently, “on the whole, they probably do exist…” but then he had spent an hour qualifying that remark….

    But what if I’d like to look at the question that was given me about our planet’s probity from the point of view of another discipline, rhetorike, the discipline of rhetorical analysis? Can the same piece of language be analyzed by two different ikes? Yes, because they take account of different aspects of the “same” to-be-known.

    So, let us take the question about the planet as a piece of language addressed to me in the context of this weblog conversation, from one of the physicists (and a biologist) who had been engaging with me in a discussion of semiotic or literary theory vis-a-vis the natural sciences. In rhetoric, this is called the VOICE and ADRESS of the rhetorical construct, and its rhetorical CONTEXT, right?) So… what then is the “truth” of the question? From a rhetorical perspective, what is its reality?

    Rhetoric (and lit theory) tell me that it will depend upon the kind of person who is reading it, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be specified or that it could be “just anything.” The rules for the interpretative options are probablistic but powerful, nonetheless. (Like the probabilities that the electron will be found in each of its possible locations.)

    I’ll tell you how I read it, as the lit theorist in this situation. I thought that the purpose of the question was 1) to flush out into the open whether I REALLY accepted the truth of the sciences or was just one of those social constructionnists (pretending not to be one), and 2) to suggest to me that if my field of theory couldn’t present the physicists with a factual and empirically “real” object of the same kind, then my kind of theory couldn’t be useful, but would be shown to be merely empty.

    Now, yes, I admit that this reading of the question would be a bit paranoid, so lets make some formal adjustments for that. Let me re-mark that genuine curiosity is probably involved on the part of the questioner, and a willingness to be persuaded. (This is perhaps the humanistic reader coming in now.)

    Yet I would still insist, on the whole, that the true meaning of the question is to suggest or call our attention to a certain standard for validity — yes, the planet does exist AS A PHYSICAL OBJECT, as described — and the implicit suggestion this carries it that such a standard ought to apply in my own discipline just as much as it does in the hard sciences. Isn’t this why Gavin asked me about the reality of “john McCain” as opposed to “Hamlet,” let us say? The suggestion that genuine knowing always grounds itself for its validity on the empirical object as such?

    Only it doesn’t. Remember the case of the quark. Or the case of the whatever-it-is that electrons and photons “are.” Or, to add a new example, what about “gravity”? In what sense does gravity “exist”? (In no sense as an empricial OBJECT.) In the Newtonian account it seems to exist as “spooky action at a distance.” In Einstein’s account it exists as curvature of space-time. In an as-yet-unspecified account of quantum gravity it exists as exchanges of gravitons? The empirical object, as such, is NOT what knowing is grounded upon. I would say that knowing is always based upon a SELECTION of the probable components of a physical situation and a COMBINATION of them, according to certain principles of interactions that can be formalized theoretically.

    The very first great break-through in 17th century physics — “the universal law of gravitation” — and it was a break-through and a genuine contact with the deeper reality of the situation, remains as the one great force in nature that is not integrated with the other three forces or fully scientifically “explained.” So yes, I believe gravity exists, just as much and in the ways that physics tells me it does, which ways are impressive, fascinating, and highly equivocal!) There is an empirical component in what we know about “gravity” and what we think we know is checked carefully against the phenomenon, but the selection and combination and formalizations are our own heuristic efforts to get a deeper kind of knowing going on. That is the case in every field of knowing — just as much in the non-sciences is it the case.

    Galileo looked at balls rolling down inclined planes, and he decided to take a stab at figuring out and defining the various measurable components of this kind of motion: distance, time, speed…. He came up with carefully defined acceleration and momentum, too. (Aristotle said all knowing starts with such “definitions” of the relevant factors.) But Newton made the formal advances of vector quantities (velocity) and so his conservation of momentum followed from that.

    Now these are selected elements or components of the complex situation (the to-be-known) — from which, by the way, Galileo brilliantly excluded friction and air resistance — made it possible to posit and describe a “force” called gravity. (What gravity really is, best described, is probably that it is the componnet that interacts with the other components in that system of interrelationships, and as the theorizing of the system evolves, the identity of gravity evolves.)

    Galileo observed closely how the measurable components seemed to interact with one another. He also took a formally pre-existing language — mathematics — and employed it as a material out of which to formulate equations that corresponded with the situation, insofar as he was able to formalize it at the time. I want to stress that everything Galileo did was HEURISTIC — he did it in order to attempt to engage in knowing the selected to-be-knowns. There was an awful lot about the situation that he was formalizing that he didn’t know, but that Newton worked out. And there’s still an awful lot about the situation we don’t know today.

    That, to me, is a genuine way of knowing. And the rhetorical way of knowing is identical. The complex situation is explored heuristically by selecting and isolating its apparent components: the rhetorical construct, its voice, its address, and its context or “world.” Every language-construct can be analyzed in these dimensions, Voice is often called the first person or speaker; address is the second person or hearer, the 3rd person is the world referred to by the language. But what sets rhetorical analysis apart from grammatical or logical analysis, for Plato and Aristotle and later theorists in the liberal arts, was that in rhetoric, the telos (end, goal, aim) lies in the hearer. The language-construct is arranged to affect the hearer(s) in a certain set of ways. In our case, the question about the planet was addressed rtheotorically not only to me, and other humanists, but also to the other physicists (and biologist). We could focus on each of the kinds of hearers that were in view and relate aspects of the question itself to those hearers. Rhetoricians have been doing this for millenia, and so have poets, since rhetorike is an art that must be acquired by those who work in poietike….

    I could also do a literary analysis of that same question about the planet — remember that it arose out of an idea we had that telling each other stories out of our disciplines might help us discuss the theory of the ways of knowing…. To read Plato’s Ion, it will be crucial to submit the dialogue to a rhetorical analysis, and also to a literary analysis as a piece of poetics, if we mean to engage in interpreting its deeper structures and operations as a language-construct.

    Hidden behind these various formal activities of knowing, at least if I am the one carrying them out, lies the semiotic or structuralist principle that for every facet of interpretation there is something in the material itself that signals that signification. There is always a grounding of our knowing in the basic phenomenal characteristics of the phenomenon we are trying to know.

    And we also insistently check our interpretations against that data as we go, through our disciplinary dialectics. Poetic or rhetorical interpretation is no less “empirical” than the sciences are — in all cases it is not the brute empirical that we deal with. It is with selected facets of the empirical or phenomenal data and with certain combinations of them, that we deal. This is how our formalized structures or maps or theories get woven into and together with the selected aspects of the phenomena, how fact and interpretation get so deeply fused.

    It therefore becomes necessary that we be reminded over and over again that the “same” phenomenon can yeild itself to differing ways of knowing by focusing on different aspects and different combinations of aspects. And at critical points in history it has been literary theory that has done this. It is to confront us with our need for this agility and awareness that Plato is puzzling us with the question of poetics in his dialogue about Socrates and the witless rhapsode….

    What’s important for knowing truth or contacting reality in physics is that Galileo made a deeper contact with the structure of the to-be-known than Aristotle had done before him, and Newton went deeper still, and that the formal empowering of all of this came through the widening and deepening and the deft re-applications and reworkings of the theoretical ediface. THAT’S what’s important about any field of knowing.

    And if it’s an artistic or religious field of knowing, then one of the differences is that it is the individual in personal growth who has to acheive the deeper and more mature grasp of the kinds of realities that must be known personalistically, even though such growth must be facilitated in and through the formal disciplines and experiences in the musical, say, or the religious way of knowing. The ways of knowing are all irreducibly different, addressed to different to-be-knowns, or to different selections and combinations of the phenomenal world, and their depths are different kinds of depths, but they are all as ways of knowing equally heuristic, incomplete, and open to the future for additional insight.

    (They all also tend to get in their own ways by making unjustified assumptions and becoming quite blind in many respects. Disciplines take two steps forward and one step back; new learning is often new ignorance….)

    So I hope you see, Rick, that I am trying to do justice to the natural sciences, which are exemplary and awe-inspiring ways of knowing, without minimizing the other disciplines as a result.

    [I have moved a following digression on science and the polls on evolution and Richard Dawkins over to a page in my side-bar titled “Dawkins and the God Wars.” Hope this doesn’t inconvenience anyone. Thanks.]

  5. Rick


    You point out that in language usage there is a speaker (or writer), an intended audience, and some content to the speech, and the speaker has some motivation for his speech – such to convey or elicit information, and the speech is tailored to that end. An astronomer discussing his work will choose diffent words if addressing a high school science class than if addressing those who also work in the field.

    Lets play a little with this idea in regard to Eagleton’s review of Dawkins book (I assume you were referring to the LRB Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching ). When I read his review, my impression was that basically, the review was an exercise in missing the point.

    One of the difficulties in written text is it is hard to determine – of perhpas hard to limit – who the intended audience is. In face-to-face conversation, we generally know who we are talking ot, and, because of the real-time nature of the coversation, can adjust accordingly. In written text it is not as clear who the intended audience is, and, one the text is “out there”, it is “out there”, without the give and take, real-time possibilities for on-the-fly correction, restatement, and accommedation to the views of the listener. A case in poit would be you comment in anaother thread that “the sciences ought to get out of the religion business as fast and as throroughly as possible”. Do you see, as a written statement “out there” how it could be taken to be one-sided “it’s their fault” type of statement? You replied that I know you better than that – but not this is not face-to-face converstion, and not all readers knwon you better that that. How easy would it be to argue back “that’s not what you said …”? Notcie alos how difficult it would probably be for a face-to-face coversation to come across in this one-sided manner, both becuase the more personal relationship that exists in actual conversation, but also because of the real-time correction possibilites.

    Because of this characteristic, written text tends to push the listener and, to a lesser degree, the speaker into the background, and focus much more on the content of the speech.

    WHo is the intended audience to Eagleton’s review? (Is “the readership of the LOndion Review of Books a particularly meaningful category? and, more improtantly, does is include the science blogger who trahed the review?)

    As a kind of aside, there are those who argue in one way or another this type of difference between spokne and written language usage has significant reprecussions throughout the culture and thought; as extreme example is Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, and I see this as a theme in John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing.

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

    If you read books on how to negotiate, one of the main points this type of book almost always makes is that to successfully negotiate one needs to underestand that what someone asks for is not alway what they want. It is generally true that they will ask for something that they believe will give them what they want, and that often they themselves have confused what they are asking for with what they want, but often a negotiation has to center on what they parties want, rather on what they are asking for. One book I read the author mentioned a negotiation for buying a business; the negotiation was going nowhere until he realized that it was vitally important to the seller that he sell the business for more than his (the seller’s) brother had sole his (the brother’s) business a few yeas earlier. Once that was understood, they could arrange thing to keep the states purchase price high, while having other means to get the acutal price down to what the buyer was willing to pay. Another example is Archbishop Levada,when he was in San Fancisco, who negotiated with the city to adopt a health care ordinace for employer-provided health care that gave the same-sex partners of those in domestic partnerships access to health care (what they were asking for) by having the ordinace grant the care to any “legally domiciled member” of the employee’s houshold, while denying most of those involved what they wanted (marriage-like recognition and enhanced societal recognition of domestic partnerships as a form of legitimate family-making).

    What is the context in which Dawkins and those he generally speaks for writing in? Taking Eagleton as basically correct when he argues that Dawkins is writing from a particular liberal political and moral stance, and my arguement that Dawkins and in a stream that is reacting against what they see as (im)moral and political attacks on their own political and moral values, I would think we can see that they are reacting against a particular stream of religious thought and action. THis, is, I think, “what they want” – their strident athiesm is “what they are asking for”. As I argues in the previous paragraph, not the same thing.

    Eagleton may, in some abstract sense, be correct, for example, in the factual content when he says that “cosmic manufacturer” is not ” what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator”, but this does not in any way address the motivation, for Dawkins as the bloggers, it in no way addresses what they want. They are concerned about those who, in the name of religion, want to water down (or eliminate) science (and in particular biology) education by teaching creationism and/or intellegent design as if they were science. It simply is not relevant to their concerns that there are those out there that hold to religion that do not support this (in their opinion) destruction of scientific eduation. A metaphor could be (perhaps reversing the politics a little) could responding to someone who warns about casual anonymous sex because of the danger of AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases by pointing out that most people why engage in such activities do not in fact have such diseases. However true that may statically be, it does not address the concerns of the person warning against such activies.

    What does having an opinion about the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus have to do with denying same-sex couples the right to marry? Or teaching evolution is schools. Or flying airplanes into buildings? Eagleton – get real!

    The bloggers are right – one does not need to get the fine points of traditional theology to see that science, particularly biology, is under attack in the name of religion, and that medical research (for example stem cell research) is under attack in the name of religion. Or that reproductive rights – abortion, access to birth control – is under attack in the name of religion.

    (Of course, I do not necessarily hold these views myself, but am expressing what I take to be representatvie of the kinds of views held by those who trashed Eagleton’s reveiw),


  6. Rick, I am so glad I happened to check my spam file and saw your comment and thus recovered it from that limbo. (Sorry it was held up a day or two.)

    I guess here’s the problem I still see, even after admitting your very just remarks. The group that is represented by (or see themselves in league with) the Dawkins crusade are not saying: “These religious people ought not to attack science. They are not helping society. They are ignoring the validity of scientific knowing.” That is what I wish they were saying. I say it too.

    No, it’s the part where Dawkins and the strident bloggers are saying “These religious people are stupid and dangerous because they think God exists, when it is obvious to any rational human being that such a claim is refuted by science.”

    Eagleton is focusing on this part and it is what stands out for persons trained like Eagleton or me, when we read Dawkins. (It’s the ontological and epistemological assumptions that undergird Dawkins’ views, just as they undergird the views of his extremist opponents.)

    This is where the problem becomes a matter of intolerance and pre-judging the “work of knowing” in one sphere, on the basis of what one knows in another sphere. This refusal to take into account the validity of other ways of knowing is what makes Dawkins and the fundamentalist anti-evolutist, in this one respect, exactly alike. The problem is, in other words, that respected and highly intelligent faculty persons like Dawkins can think that it is perfectly okay for him, and intellectually valid, to practice such a monological and exclusivist way of thinking as a teacher of the liberal arts. Something is very muddled here, in our grasp of what the liberal arts are about in their fundamental intellectual underpinnings.

    As an educator, I am interested in what the liberal arts education can effect in this regard. Everything I say is best taken (in my hopes) in terms of “how do we educate with regard to this?”

    So when I said, “science should get out of the religion business,” I meant that scientific educators crusading against religion in general or against belief in God in general do not advance the cause of helping students to grapple with the fact that things look very different from within different ways of knowing and that they need to hold their own commitments within a context of being open to the insights and profound depths of other ways of knowing.

    In this sense, Eagleton was defending the intellectual validity and the deep rational significance of world-historical theological thinking — against the seeming strictures of a Dawkins who would seem to rule that possibility out in advance — because “belief in God” is prima facie stupid and incorrect, so what COULD ever come out of it? (I remember the comment thread on the Eagleton criticism of Dawkins’ lack of theological background. One young scientist said, “Why does anyone need to know anything about religion to know that it is ridiculous to think God exists” — or words to that effect. This is illiberal thinking, pure and simple. This is what we need to try to show students and challenge them to develop out of it, without attacking their core commitments to science or to their faiths.)

    And this Dawkins maintains, when clearly his own definition of “God” is extraordinarily limited and reductive. The word for him excludes the “numinous” and “that which is evocative of awe and reverence,” for instance, as in his interview I discussed in my post “Bravo for 3 Quarks Daily.” He says he believes in something out there more wonderful than anything we could conceive, but won’t admit into his thought world that this is the central identification of “God,” for huge numbers of religious persons throughout history.

    As educators, we cannot stop political forces from crusading against evolution by re-inforcing the dogmatic structure of thinking that underlies their way of thinking and making truth claims. But we can attempt to educate students into respect for scientific and for religious ways of knowing by getting them into deep contact with those ways of knowing, which I think is the liberation that is sorely needed by so many students who come to us already imbued with a dogmatic view about what “reason” or “revelation” may be — i.e. the sole source of absolute truth, instead of profound ways of struggling with the pursuit of truth, the struggle that can turn them into a knower who can respect and personally integrate very different perspectives. But I don’t see this happening on campuses that are themselves divided into two camps and reinforcing dogmatically shaped truth-claims.

    This is not advocating a mushy “anything-goes” relativism, either, although even THAT is preferable (as a learning stage) to “I have the truth and that’s all there is to it.” I do not agree with Allan Bloom that a wariness with respect to absolutist truth claims is a regrettable “relativism” among students on our campuses, but I agree that it needs to be developed into something much sharper and finer and more excellent, an ability to test and appreciate the validity of various ways of knowing in their own methodological terms and to become thereby a new kind of knower, that “centre of thought and responsibility” that the liberal arts education is aimed at producing.

    It surely may seem that theorists need to “get real” but I believe they are trying, in the best cases, to get real by grasping the deeper formal constructions underlying the political and social problems we are beseiged with. Again, I think we need a much sharper, clearer theory of what knowing is like, that in its very constitution, it requires “irreducibly many” ways of knowing (methodologies) addressed to many different kinds of things.

    We seem to have grasped that different CULTURES need to be respected and not dismissed out of hand from beforehand (though Dawkins comes very close to this with respect to religious cultures such as Islam). But we more fundamentally need a multi-methodologies or a multi-disciplines understanding of the arts and sciences (of knowing truth) as well. The trouble with this is that it will put the onus right back where it belongs, on the individual humanistic subject, the “free citizen,” who is the place where the new agility has to emerge and be brought to bear on the issues we need to “get real” about.

  7. blert


    Brad Gregory, a historian at Notre Dame, gave an interesting talk that I attended a few days ago drawn from his current project that ought to be published sometime in the next couple years by, I think (?), Harvard UP. I understand what you are trying to suggest in these posts, but my sense of Gregory’s argument poses some criticisms and challenges to what you say about knowledge and its place in society. I can’t say that what I offer matches Gregory’s argument precisely, but I have to give credit for many of these thoughts where it is due.

    As you talk about this “struggle to interpret these materials and traditions” of faith, isn’t this problem of interpretation precisely the postmodern conundrum that we face? It is not anymore just that we have many ways of knowing, but that we cannot even agree anymore on what it is that we are attempting to know (what that “to-be-known” is), and that we have no hope of reconciling our disagreements with one another. The basic law of logic, the law of non-contradiction (A is not non-A), demands that of all competing truth claims, only one can be true, and yet the dogma of “toleration” in our society has put this principle into suspension in the public sphere. Religion and now even the entire humanities are consigned to a deeply private space, and thus they have little value in secular society that demands a commodification of goods.

    Whereas through the medieval and early modern centuries, and even into modernity, people expected that the false competing truth claims would eventually fall aside, now we simply hold these claims in isolation from one another. Adherents to a given view ardently hold their beliefs to be true, but their claims are never put through the rigor of being tested and challenged by other views. Indeed, anyone who attempts to weigh the truth claims of two religions or two systems of belief against one another is labeled as dogmatic and intolerant, and the conversation ends there.

    Our means for interpreting biblical materials and traditions have dissipated following the Reformation. Pre-Reformation, the medieval church was one of great diversity in religious expression and practice, but it was held together by a common liturgy and sacraments, and clergy closely guarded the authority of interpretation. Priests could disagree, of course, but the centralized structure of the church always pulled back toward commonalities. By the seventeenth century, however, people were struggling with competing interpretations, and the rightness of any interpretation became a matter of divine inspiration, except that this “inward light” or whatever it might be called often produces deeply competing truth claims from different people, and verifying or disputing that an individual’s “feeling” of God is impossible. People simply had to agree to disagree, which perhaps found one of its profoundest expressions in the First Amendment, initially maintaining the hope that everyone would eventually return to the fold. The Western states’ guarantees of religious toleration in exchange for political loyalty carried with it a powerful secular domination over religion, which has brought us to the secular agnosticism that pervades today. People in our society want to hold their beliefs to be true, but doing so would deny the truth value of other people’s beliefs, which shows a lack of toleration that is tantamount to treason against society and the state. To be a part of this society means to hold one’s beliefs to oneself and not to have them come into contact with others’ beliefs.

    In many respects, then, I think that your formula of “the telos of the liberal arts tradition” as producing an entirely personalistic wisdom rather than a scripted doctrine is, in fact, a very post-Reformation understanding of the matter. (Even the “liberal arts tradition” as a label for everything from Socrates onward seems highly anachronistic since this notion of education really only began to be articulated during the rise of Humanism, which, no surprise, coincided closely with the Reformation.) You may well be able to work out in your mind bridges among various cultural divides based on semiotic theory, etc., but in the larger system of our secular culture, this only goes to reinforce the diversity and irreconcilability of truth claims. Your view necessarily rejects others’ views, but the articulation of your view merely adds to the accretion of perspectives that exist in our society. As long as nobody actually poses a danger to anyone else, our society rules simply that all of these views ought to be able to exist at once, and so any new addition to the wide ocean of beliefs merely reinforces the rights of others to hold vastly differing views from your own.

    Especially when you arrive at the question of what this means as an educator, I think you position becomes extremely complicated by the secular pluralism that our society enforces. Yes, one on side Dawkins claims to have the truth, and on another side a Christian fundamentalist professes to have the truth, and on another side a Muslim claims to have the truth, and so on, and occasionally frictions erupt as people fire shots at each other, but society overall enforces the secular dictum that we cannot make any firm judgments among these views. Yet, in enforcing this, society effectively reduces those views to irrelevance in the public sphere. How does an educator bring back religion and the humanities (anything that requires interpretation) to a place of prominence in the public sphere without posing a threat to the secular state that tells us to avoid such conflicts?

  8. Thank you for these comments. I think they are entirely relevant, laying out the very problematics I have been thinking through and struggling with for decades, and they very clearly show the ABSENCE of what would be necessary in order for us to pass through this aporia (or impasse).

    Your very thoughtful comments show what it is that we have lost since the Renaissance, the ability to substantiate the truth claims of each discipline in its own form-al terms. Remember that the “entirely personalistic wisdom” you refer to is not a truth-claim at all, and so not a competitor with the valid truth claims of the various disciplines, but is the RESULT (within the knowing subject) of experiencing those irreducible many validities in knowing. (Also notice, this is about KNOWING, not about KNOWLEDGE, and the shift to being concerned with knowledge and substantiating its necessary truth is a huge part of the problem, in part because it re-conceives truth as something whose very being humans can exhaust and reduce realtive to themselves, so that “absolute truth” ends up reducing truth to merely what humans can formulate of it.)

    But we in our world have no way to substantiate the validity of disciplinary truth claims because we keep looking for a single universalist truth instead, and we keep thinking that is needs to be substantiated precisely by either an appeal to the concrete object (naive empiricism leading to sophisticated positivism) or by some indubitable logical ordering among idealities (naive idealism leading to analytical logicism).

    Actually, no one can really respond to what I am doing until I get the theory itself out there, the theory of knowing a la the Greeks (and as evidenced also among poststructuralist semioticists) and continuing through the Renaissance, that does NOT seek a universalist truth, as the terms for such came into operation first in the modern scientific, post-Reformation, world of thought.

    I am deeply satisfied to see that my own theoretical work has taken on a substantial shape over the past months, along with the texts and tools to make it cogent for others, but it requires too long and too very demanding a textual argument to put here on this weblog.

    In it, I am attempting to “restore a lost breathing” by giving a new kind of substance and energy to some forgotten theoretical motions (form-ality itself) that theorize how humans come to know, or to engage efficaciously, in knowing any sort of thing whatsoever. (The “opening” of that possibility lies in the “sort of” or the “kind of,” in the way that things are also kinds of things — a path that we have forgotten how to think, though Husserl, Heidegger, the “logicist” analytics, have all struggled mightily to find one.)

    And yes, it is true, as you say, that the “kind of thing” itself is thus put into question — and can never be taken back out of question thereafter, but that is precisely the path that knowing travels (and must always travel), ever since Socrates put the kind of thing in itself — the Eidos or Idea or (Aristotle’s) “species” — into dynamic play as the unreachable but determinate goal of a trajectory of knowing, a “path into the light” which can then gain its own community, develop its fitting methodologies, and benefit from an actualized HISTORY of its own theory and practice. (As with theology in the West, or the natural sciences in the West, except that both were seduced into a different, triumphalist theory of their own truth.)

    Basically, the Greco-European truth-claim prior to the rise of science was restricted and focused, because it was always disciplinary and therefore inherently LIMITED, and therefore in need of interaction with other narrow and determinate kinds of truth-claims to reach its own being within the human subject. (On an analogous level, each Christian had to struggle, for example, with the truth of the humanity of Christ as our divine Beloved, and the truth of the divinity of the same person, or with nature as created good by God, and with nature as fallen (but sustained by grace), and so on, and on. These various truth-claims taken by themselves were simply heresies that could not nourish a deeper contact with that toward-which these determinate truth-claims pointed. It is quite one thing to state a truth (claim) and quite another thing to come to terms with it in relationship to other truths, but we have lost sight of the theory of this latter kind of knowing.)

    So the Greco-European sort of truth-claim is that truth is found IN the on-going human (disciplinary and personal) determination of the determinate “kind of thing” to which each kind of knowing is addressed, and such a history of determinations must always be in subjection to the depth and riches of structure and operation that continue to lie IN the kind of thing (never fully known) itself, as a determinate human knowing progresses.

    This (kind of) history of knowing is perfectly capable of revising its own origins by redefining its own kind of thing, as it continues. IN fact, that is the very path that it walks! Its path (hodos) is its method (meta + hodos) — the original Socratic insight. And as Parmenides said, the path into the light “always returns to where it began.” (To the putative eidos as telos of knowing, or the “kindness” of the kind of thing in its form-al dimensions. But it returns, only in order to begin again.)

    Now I can show that what Galileo and Newton were doing in the 17th century in forging their new natural philosophy as a way of knowing into (directed towards) “the motions of solid bodies” followed this archetypical “path” of knowing and continues to do so to this day. But their working as physcial scientists was mis-understood philosophically, and interpreted from the beginning as a brand new kind of method — one that achieved a new kind of truth, a “universal” method seeking a “universal” truth.

    This new “truth” is one that ALL BY ITSELF applies to everything, and makes humans masters of absolute KNOWLEDGE, but only by reducing everything to solid bodies in motion, which can certainly be done for the natural kinds of things, if we ignore their kindness, except for their kindness as solid bodies that obey laws of motion and gravitation. (We see right here what earlier thinkers knew, that the same physical objects can support many ways of knowing, each as valid as its methodology and historical-theoretical development is capable of making it, because physical objects actually contain so many kinds of structure and attributes. Which is a substantial formal validity. It is not that science studies physical concrete attributes and humanities study non-physical ones. Every discipline studies aspects of the external world.)

    Bacon and Descartes and Leibnitz in particular inshrined this new and unheard-of triumphalism of method (and monolithicism of “reality”) through their self-reading or self-interpretation of early classical physics, at the same time that they reconceived the world as made of two stuffs, res extensa and res cogitans…. Even though physics itself has advanced far beyond these accompanying epistemological clothings provided for it by early modern philosophy and epistemology, nonetheless modern “theory of knowledge” of course could not advance with the advances in the sciences; hence the troubles the arts and sciences are in today in the English-speaking tradition, as we are realizing that none of them has a universal or necessary truth that is absolutely established either by empiricist or rationalism. We invented our own nightmare: either we have absolute truth, or else “anything goes.”

    This is the aporia of our time, in our own historical cultural setting. (We have never needed a universal knowledge: we have only needed the formal abilities and equipped subjectivities to address our own day.) We must find a way to think through the impasse, to think ourselves back onto the path that is a struggle of knowing but that is formally defined amid other formally defined struggles of knowing. We have to un-weave the absolutist truth-claims we have so carefully woven together and enforced upon ourselves. (The results of which we see in the wars of science and religion and the rise of various fundamentalisms in their Modernist guise.)

    What I am doing is bringing back into the light of our (epistemic) consciousness the ways in which (speci-fic) truth is substantiated in its own disciplinary communities, which on the one hand makes the truth claims of each community more modest in their very constitution, but, on the other, gives all of them a real purchase on the reality of the external world. (Neither side — the hard sciences vs cultural theory — will be entirely happy, in the short run.)

    Basic to my efforts is making languages and model-making formally fresh and determinative again, while leaving room for the humanist subject as agent, not as a perfectly “free” agent, which has no meaning (and was never in view until the modern logicist era, which brackets history), but as a local-historical agent able to read the lines of force and the degrees of freedom available (from where we now stand) — and to read them TOWARDS a future that is “possible” from wherever we stand in our historical and cultural contingencies of formation.

    Not to read them absolutely. Only to read them “possible” or probabilistically, potentially effectively ENOUGH — with “good enough” formal thinking — in order to initiate into the future something that might tend toward the good. (Then the other shoe drops, that the more effective it is in that direction, the more liable it is to be made into its own opposites, a truth about truth well-known to pre-scientific Christians, among others. But Americans are an optimistic people, so we won’t perhaps emphasize this…?)

    (Also compare: Arendt’s “nativity” of the human “actor” — the one who is individuated and historically situated enough to be capable of initiating powerful actions within the community).

    So let me conclude by using one of your sentences:

    “The basic law of logic, the law of non-contradiction (A is not non-A), demands that of all competing truth claims, only one can be true, and yet the dogma of “toleration” in our society has put this principle into suspension in the public sphere.”

    This is PRECISELY the problem. Notice here this triumphalism of “only one (truth) can be true” — balanced against its polar other, that “anything goes,” that every truth is equally valid (relativism). The problem lies in our intellectual formation as moderns, in the way we frame the question on a deep-structure level. (And as post-moderns, because we have not read the lessons of the great Continental poststructuralist theorists. We have seen them too much as “relativists,” which is all they CAN be within our framework.)

    This “basic law of logic” was to Aristotle simply the law of “demonstration” (apodeictic) — it was NOT the “way” in which — the path along which — human disciplines travel “into the light” with respect to their chosen kinds of things. Demonstration by its very constitution comes into play only AFTER some determinate knowing has taken place, after the fact, when definitions and first principles have already been hazarded, and then only in the “necessary” sciences of geometry and arithmetic. (But even here, no one could follow the most basic geometric demonstrations, unless one had already spent some time, with a teacher preferably, looking at plane figures and observing them and moving them around…so notes Aristotle in Metaphysics….)

    Now Galileo actually did something quite distinctive. He took available formalisms from geometry and arithmetic and then he used them to build models and make definitions with respect to the natural processes that he was closely observing. The history of physics ever since has been one of naming and defining hypothesized entities (mass, speed, acceleration, all of which were from the start FORM-AL “kinds of things,” by the way) and developing them theoretically, as checked by experimental corrections, a disciplinary practice of knowing which will always reach out for new formalisms as they are developed in geometry-mathematics, but within those fields — the algebraicizing of geometry that Descartes accomplished or the calculus developed by Newton and Leibnitz, developed AS MATHEMATICIANS, and so on to Einstein’s use of Cartan and Minkoswki and so on and on.

    In fact, this use of the formalisms studied by other disciplines, in order to build models of natural-world kinds of things, makes physics closest to what was for Aristotle (I believe) the archetypical discipline, poietike or the ike of “poetics,” which he showed was the ike of making “wholes” that are used as devices for knowing other “putative” wholes in the external world. Aristotle thought that the external world (including the shared human worlds in their local and cultural plurality) provided as PRODUCTS what could then be taken as the raw materials for other human ways of knowing, just the way that nature produces trees as formal products, and trees therefore possess the dunamis or intrinsic, built-in potential “power,” that suits them to being made into rafts or houses, by the productive arts of making rafts or houses.

    In the same way, though Aristotle did not know it, the formal products of geometry and mathematics would have intrinsic formal powers, making them suitable to become the raw materials for models built by other disciplines (physics, chemistry…) as ways of seeing into natural processes and structures.

    Well, I’ve actually done a better job of giving a glimpse into what I’m doing than I thought would be possible, perhaps. It’s certainly helpful for me to be prodded into these synopses of my off-line work…. So thanks again for your offerings.

  9. Rick

    Dawkins and those for whom he speaks are reacting to what is salient to them in terms of thier own mental maps. I don’t know for sure about Dawkins, but some (many), if asked directly in a calmer setting, will acknowledge that there are non-fundamentalist, non-literalist theists, and that they have no proble with these types of theists. They do seem, however, to believe (as this is the central, prototypical case), that such faith, though it can take a nonobjectionable form, inherently will break into social and political objectional forms. Recalling Eagleton’s argument that Dawkins, and others like him, use come to the conversation with political and moral beliefs, for example as late as 2003 (just five years ago) the Roman Catholic Church in Chile was still opposing – politcally – the introduction of the availablily of divorce ( I chose the Roman Catholic case here to demonstrate that it is not just “fundamentalist” of the Americal evangelical stripe, and not just with regard to evolution, that are the problem).

    Eagleton thus simply “talks past” them. He agrees with them in a manner they cannot accept while attacking them on the very point he agrees with them on.


    I think you are being too harsh in your criticism of what you take to be the “scientific” “way of knowing”.

    Take, for example chess. I don;t think anyone on the “scientific” side would disagree that a chess master lacks knowledge of chess. But chess is in many ways the opposite of science. Science is trying to understand the system which gives rise to the observable “brute facts” in the natureal world. Chess is pure institutional fact; the knowledge is of chess is about the consequences of institutional rules that “count as” legal chess moves. There is nothing in chess like a the law of gravitation – there are only heuristics, approaches that in general are advantageous or disadventageous; no chess opening will guarentee a win. Nature has no purpose, no end; chess does (to win).

    You have said that the order lies in the “to be known” – this is true of nature and science, and of chess. One of the things that they have in common; what makes them both acceptable “kinds of knowledge”, is that in both the data (the results of measurements, the position of the pieces on the board), are public. We can. at least, agree on what we are studying. A rook is either attacking the opponent’s queen or not – on that we can agree, whether we be male or female, black or white, russian or american, young or old. And, at least because we also agree on the standard (checkmate), there is at least the possibility that we can agree on what to do about it (take the rook with the queen, move the queen out of the way, sacrifice the queen for a positional advantage, etc.) This is the same for science – measurements are public in this sense. Either the light form the star is acts like the star is wobbling back and forth or not. Given proper instruments, this behavior of the light is the same whether we be male or female, black or white, russian or american, young or old.

    Another thing is, I beleive, is that in both cases we can articulate – based upon this public data – what it is that we are studying. A book on chess openings is exactly that, a book on chess openings. It is not a textbook on geology or a theological argument. An article on evolution is exactly that, an article on evolution – those that try to treat it as somethin more are misusing it. On eof the problems with “the humanities” is often the inability(?), unwillingness(?) to articulate what exactly they profess to be studying, and how the public data relates to this filed of inquiry.

    Another thing that comes into play here is what I call “universality”; that all true knowldge “fits together”, or at least, does not contradict. This is a hallmark of science; that discoveries in one filed may well have – and need to fit in with – what is known in all other fields. Chemistry has to fit in with physics and biology; if they disagree then (at least one) is wrong as evidence by the disagreement.

    Chess is, of course. completely separate – it needs not agree – because its realm is – and is acknowledged to be – different. But the fact that something as different as chess can be accepted as a “way of knowing” I think raises questions as to your claim of a monolithic western “way of knowing”. If chess masters started claiming that chess somehow illuminated science, and scientists were wrong on, say, biochemistry, becasue their theories were seemingly in conflict with chess theory, then we would start seeing the same sort of dismissal we see with religion today. It is not a “different way of knowing” per se that is the problem; it is the claim that the applicaton of these “different ways of knowing” are “truer” in other realms than their own.


  10. blert


    I know nothing of the band. “Blert” is no more than a random web name that I use from time to time, although I do know USE and am an acquaintance with many of the members from a long time back…although that was when most of them were “The Lincolns” and another was part of “Sidney.”

    Alas, the web is a dangerous place, especially as an academic, and I prefer to avoid leaving tracks that can be traced back to me in an easy Google search, especially since I’ll be looking for a job next year. Maybe after I get tenure…or after I retire.

    I am an old honors student of yours, though, so it is interesting to check back in on you from time to time.

    Thanks, too, for the comments. When I’ve graded a stack of Shakespeare papers and exams, I’ll digest them more leisurely and perhaps get back with a comment.

  11. blert


    In your chess example, chess can perhaps provide loose metaphors to science, but nobody expects chess to agree with science because ideas about chess are describing something very different. All of the physical sciences, on the other hand, need to agree because they are essentially describing the same object–the natural world. Each describes different facets, but it would be impossible to have biology without having chemistry, and both of these would be impossible without physics.

    Chess offers an interesting model from a scientific perspective in that it is a closed system with a variety of specific rules governing all motions, but ultimately the knowledge of chess operates on a very different level from science. Science aims at material causes and and formal causes, which are hardly issues at all in chess. The “form” is set in the board and the rules, and the real knowledge of a chess master is in the final cause and the efficient cause. A person playing chess comes to the board with a specific aim, to defeat the opponent’s king by putting the king in checkmate, but science is generally uninterested in final causes, which is what makes chess strategy irrelevant as a scientific knowledge.

    In this aspect, then, chess knowledge fits much more into the humanities.

    Of course, you criticize the humanities for failing to articulate exactly what they profess to be studying and, implicitly, for lacking the universal agreement of science (or at least the sense that universal agreement is a goal that can be striven toward). Indeed, the postmodern humanities have no clear sense of what they claim to be studying, and they are becoming less and less relevant in the public sphere, because there is no universal purpose explicitly understood within the humanities. The humanities, along with society more broadly, have jettisoned telos, and so the disciplines are losing their ability to talk about what is the purpose of our study, and even what is the object of our study.

    Of course, I wonder, too, if science isn’t also fraught with this challenge in some sense, and it becomes most apparent at the extremes of science as mathematicians and theorists attempt to identify the very, very big and very, very small. Language of telos seems to intrude into science on these fringes as scientists talk about the “God particle,” etc. How would our sciences function differently if they recognized in their object of study a final cause? Or do you think that Aristotle’s four causes is an obsolete model? Or do you think that science ought to be exempt from considering higher-level causes, and teleology in particular?

  12. Rick


    You suggested that “chess knowledge fits much more into the humanities”, which is generally in line with the point I was trying to make. As I understand it, Janet has, as I understand it, the thesis that in modern (as opposed to postmodern) thought that science (in partiuclar physics) has a kind of a “lock” on what consititutes a valid “way of knowing”, and scientific knowledge is seen as the only legitimate knowledge. I was using chess as a kind of counter-example, which is both a different kind of knowledge than strict scientific knowlge, but is also accepted as a legitimate form of knowledge (in it’s own field, or course).

    I was not trying to be quite as harsh with the humanities as your response seems to have me being. I was trying to say that humanities – at least to those of the more scientific bent – do not alway make it clear what they are studying. My thesis is that the conflict between humanities and sciences is more of one of competing – and conflicting – claims rather than of any per se rejection of “ways of knowing”, and perhaps at least occasionally the conflict may be more apparent than real in that the two are really looking at two different parts of the phenomena under investigation.

    Science, at least the natural sciences, are based to their very roots, both philosophically and methodolgically, on the absence of final causes in the natural world. Rain may water the crops, but that is not the teleological end of rain, any more that eroding mountains, something rain also does, is its teleological end. A carbon atom has no final cause. Evolutionarily, a birds wing certainly allows the bird to fly, but is not the final end of the wing; the wing, as lacking any “true” final cause (Searle uses the word “function” here), is free to change its function, as with the penguin, to a flipper for swimming.

    Of course, using science (engineering) is putting the natural laws in service to ends which we as people provide, and thus does have some aspect final causes – a bridge does have the end (function) of spanning a river (although natural bridge, in VA, does not – it just is).

    I am not sure how we would fit such teleology into natural science. As for Aristotles other three causes, I don’t see how they have proven to be very useful, at least in science, so they are in that sense obsolete, in that they do not play a role in the modern scientific understanding of the world.


  13. Janet,
    FYI: I figured your pronunciation guide was aimed at my post -ike & Tina. i know the proper pronunciation of -ike. I was just ‘playing’ with the word. You know, trying to introduce some flux to the whole discussion. :)

  14. Get out!

    No, actually I want to apologize for sounding ungracious! When I added that little pronunciation key.

    Your “Ike and Tina” heading just reminded me of how many people might be tempted to say “Ike” instead of “Eekay”…for the name of the Greek ways of knowing, including all the epistemes and technes, based on the suffix -ike added to the name of the kind of thing (arithmetike, grammatike, poietike, rhetorike, mousike, etc — for those who haven’t a clue what we are talking about….)

    I love the fact that readers are talking to each other here, btw. I’ll log in later with my own 2 cents worth….

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